Making a Living

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Conical Intersect (Gordon Matta-Clark, 1975).

The Hidden Abode

With some minor exceptions, the earliest socialists, such as Charles Fourier, had little interest in the daily struggles of working people. For them, socialism was to be discovered through careful thinking, and realized by a wealthy benefactor. Fourier waited every day in his foyer for some philanthropist to come invest in his socialist future. He even went so far as to pitch to Napoleon his grand scheme to rescue “the human race from social chaos.”1

Not until the 1830s and 1840s, after working people began to struggle independently, did revolutionaries like Auguste Blanqui, Karl Marx, and others begin to consistently argue that socialism had to be based in the struggles of workers, not the elaborate schemes of intellectuals. Eventually this idea took hold, and, especially after mass migration, the spread of industry, and the dramatic sociopolitical restructurings of the 1860s and 1870s, when numerous states granted constitutions, reformed civil laws, and established parliaments, the entire socialist movement anchored itself to the struggles of the “working class.”2 Socialism would henceforth be inseparable from the formation of the working class into a coherent political subject.

Of course, it was unclear who exactly belonged to this class. Workers fell into a thousand different categories, working life remained heterogeneous, and distinct forms of production like slavery, wage labor, and sharecropping constantly bled into each other. Moreover, most workers did not have any kind of fixed identity. They were always on the move, harvesting the land in the fall like peasants, living without work over the winter, perhaps finding a factory job in the spring. The working class therefore seemed less like an indivisible singularity than a chaotic multitude shot through with differences in tradition, religion, culture, trade, race, gender, and nationality.

This unruliness posed a strategic dilemma. How could such a heterogeneous multitude compose itself into a single subject?3 In the late 19th century, social democracy had to confront this problem with a complex set of practices and theoretical proposals. The now familiar theoretical problematic of social democracy rests on three fundamental principles:

First, that one sector of the working multitude metonymically stood in for all the rest. As much of the propaganda of the period attests, the male wage worker in the factory became the face of the working class as such, its struggles rendered the most visible.

Second, the interests of this particular figure took priority over all others; the desires of ethnic minorities for racial equality, of women for emancipation, or of colonized populations for self-determination, would be realized as a subordinate function of the revolution made by factory workers.

Third, socialists privileged the shop floor, where these factory workers worked, as the primary terrain of class formation. The factory was not only where the most ardent battles were said to be fought, but where the entire working class as such entered into world history. Some, like Otto Rühle, took this factoryist logic to the extreme, arguing that “only in the factory is the worker of today a real proletarian… Outside the factory he is a petty-bourgeois, involved in a petty bourgeois milieu and middle class habits of life, dominated by petty bourgeois ideology.”4

For better or worse, these three orientations, which all implied each other, initially derived from largely strategic considerations. The struggles of industrial workers in the factory appeared as primary precisely because this was where the working class was strongest and the capitalists potentially the weakest. For it was not only where profits ultimately derived, but where unprecedented numbers of workers were gathered. In concentrating so many workers in the same, critical location, capital had created the very conditions of its own undoing. As the widely read Karl Kautsky explained:

All the conditions of modern production tend to increase the solidarity of the laboring classes. In the Middle Ages each artisan produced a finished product; he was industrially almost independent. Today it often takes scores, or even hundreds, to produce a finished product. Thus does industry teach co-operation.5

Working alongside each other, cooperating in the production process, experiencing a common situation, and most of all, sharing the same exploitation, wage workers in the factory could overcome their differences to band together as a united force. It was in the hard and hardening school of the factory, socialists assumed, that the working class could learn the practice of politics.6

While this move was originally strategic in nature, it was largely justified through a teleological narrative of history. Industrialization, the story went, would create a more or less homogenous class of industrial wage workers. “Under the influence of machinery,” Kautsky continued, “the distinctions among the trades are rapidly disappearing.”7 The substitutionism implied by these three moves, therefore, would only be temporary, since soon enough all of the toiling masses would simply become industrial proletarians:

We have already seen that the industrial proletariat tends to become the only working-class. We have pointed out, also, that the other working-classes are coming more and more to resemble the proletariat in the conditions of labor and way of living. And we have discovered that the proletariat is the only one among the working-classes that grows steadily in energy, in intelligence, and in clear consciousness of its purpose. It is becoming the center about which the disappearing survivals of the other working-classes group themselves. Its ways of feeling and thinking are becoming standard for the whole mass of non-capitalists, no matter what their status may be.8

Despite all the contradictions, exclusions, and hierarchies of this theory, the political practice of social democracy was remarkably successful. Over the course of the nineteenth and especially twentieth centuries, class became a felt reality for tens of millions of workers in most countries. Organized in unions, committees, and most often mass parties, the historical working class was not only able to win a series of tremendous victories, but succeeded in preserving a sense of subjective continuity between struggles. Class, in short, became an integral part of everyday life.

However, social democracy’s success should not lead us to uncritically accept the story it told about itself. The heterogeneity of wage labor was apparent even in the factory, and the organization of workers as a class did not proceed solely along the lines predicted by the teleology. Kathleen Canning has described, in a study of female textile workers in early twentieth-century Germany, how the experience of pregnancy was a basis of shop floor camaraderie. While these women were only moderately engaged in their union, the Deutscher Textilarbeiterverband (DTAV) – partly because of its sexism – they were highly prone to launching wildcat strikes, sometimes initially in protest of sexual harassment and rape by overseers. Canning recalls that “during the years 1902 to 1904, women made up between 17 and 23 percent of DTAV rank and file but 53 percent of participants in so-called offensive strikes.” By 1908, the DTAV had “appointed Martha Hoppe as its first female secretary and officially addressed the ‘woman question’ at its congress that year.”9

It’s worth noting, however, that German women working in factories weren’t very likely to join the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which saw unions as a privileged site of political composition. In fact, most female party members were not factory workers; they stayed at home and did housework, and were usually recruited to the party by political meetings focused on the inflation of food prices.10

After a turbulent sequence of insurrections, splits, and defeats yielded the German Communist Party (KPD), female militants challenged the new party’s focus on the male factory worker, initiating food riots and the looting of consumer goods. The members of a 1922 women’s study group on Marxist economics expressed dismay at the suggestion that housework was unproductive, and proposed a new set of working-class demands: cooperative households; restriction of domestic labor to an eight-hour day; wages for housework; free choice of profession for women; and sexual freedom. In 1928, the textile workers’ union sponsored an essay contest for women about the relationship between waged work and housework, and published the collected essays.11

The KPD would finally respond to this challenge during the Great Depression, which destabilized the cohesion of the working class in the factory. This period reminds us that a foundational characteristic of the wage relation is unemployment. As Geoff Eley writes:

With its aggressively “proletarian” identity contrasting starkly with its actual members, who gathered on street corners rather than factory floors (80 percent being unemployed after 1930), the KPD found itself willy-nilly the voice of broader-based “nonclass” mobilizations around women, youth, tenants, welfare claimants, and others during its period of growth in 1930–32. Sex reform agitations over abortion and contraception were part of this, with surprising cooperation among Communist, Social Democratic, liberal, and nonaligned left-wing doctors, social workers, and other activists. The KPD—or individual Communists and their professional organizations and the coalitions and forums the party sponsored—energized the 1931 campaign for abortion reform and the remarkable sex counseling clinics that flourished before 1933.12

In other words, the wager of social democracy – that the lived experience of the male wage worker in the factory metonymically represented the whole history of working-class formation, and therefore had hegemony at the strategic level – did not actually reflect the reality of class struggle. Since social democracy’s theoretical problematic was founded on the imagined experience of waged work, which was in reality always marginal to the vast majority of toilers, it obscured the complicated political calculations that were required in its practice. In recoding a contingent decision into an invariant philosophy of history, the strategic, historically specific considerations behind these decisions have been lost. They now haunt us as tradition.

Outside the Factory

Of course, during the twentieth century, and especially in its last forty years, many radicals criticized this teleology. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminists provided a fundamental challenge to the belief that the male factory worker and his desires represented the whole of the class, arguing that the socialist movement’s myopic fixation on wage labor in the factory concealed the very sphere of work that made it possible in the first place. Wage labor, by definition, means that workers exchange their labor power for the money necessary to live. But as the feminist critique underscored, payment of wages does not automatically lead to a sated, healthy, rested worker. On the contrary, a considerable amount of work has to be done to make sure these wage workers are ready to return to work the next day. As Leopoldina Fortunati once put it:

Only work can transform the wage into the use-values required in the male worker’s reproduction; but even then the use-values are not directly or immediately consumable by him. More work is necessary to transform these use-values into use-values that are effectively usable, i.e. ready to be consumed.13

That work, which under the capitalist mode of production is the work of replenishing labor power, they called social reproduction. It is the often invisible work of cooking, cleaning, caring, educating that makes wage labor at the point of production possible. Without this, feminists rightly argued, no one can sell their labor power, no wages can be exchanged, no surplus value can be generated. Social reproduction, they continued, generally takes place within the family form, those forced to do it have historically been women, and, while it is sometimes done by waged workers, it is often unpaid. Above all, some feminists, especially in Italy, began to speak of social reproduction not just as a kind of activity, but also as an entire terrain of struggle.

While these two forms of activity – production on the one side and social reproduction on the other – have always been reciprocally implicated, the terrain of social reproduction has frequently been ignored, naturalized, or disparaged. Take, for example, E.P. Thompson’s magisterial account of class formation, The Making of the English Working Class.14 Thompson, like most socialist writers of the time, adhered to the notion of a separate, naturalized domestic sphere. He implied that the home is governed by a natural division of labor, but in the workplace, that division was historically constructed. Since “real” exploitation therefore only happens in the workplace, not at home, “real” politics, and therefore class struggle and class formation, can only emerge at the place of work. Seeing the terrain of social reproduction as outside of history, as something that was always already there, he passed it over in silence. Since this terrain has been historically gendered as female, this basically meant writing women out of history.15 In so doing, Thompson unwittingly reproduced the same teleological narrative of the 19th century socialist movements, but now as official history.

The feminist critique therefore had to be multipronged. At the level of theory, feminists explored the concepts of social reproduction, unwaged work, and surplus value. At the level of history, it was necessary to deconstruct the received story of class formation. Joan Scott and Louise Tilly’s famous book Women, Work, and Family, for example, argued first of all that social reproduction does have a history, and is therefore a site of politics, of class formation; second, that forms of production and social reproduction have always been closely related, with changes in one directly affecting the other; and third, that the home was not, and still isn’t, exclusively the realm of socially reproductive activity, but rather a complex site of both social reproduction and production.16

At the level of contemporary practice, feminists criticized the idea that the factory was the primary site of class formation by organizing a series of struggles on the terrain of social reproduction. In 1970s Italy, for example, one need only mention the struggle to legalize abortion, the Wages for Housework Campaign, or the vast movement to unilaterally reduce bus fares, electricity bills, or rents, sometimes called “autoreduction.”17

Women took the lead in these movements over the cost of living. But it is very significant, and often forgotten, that a number of the factory male workers who once glorified the plant themselves began to argue in the late 1960s that it was time to extend the struggle outside. In 1969, the wave of worker struggles known as the Hot Autumn won pay raises, better benefits, and greater say in the operations of the factory. But the reaction was swift and calculating. On one side, the unions recuperated these demands for political autonomy by creating a more democratic, but ultimately contained, council system; on the other, capitalists simply counteracted these higher wages by raising the general cost of living, increasing rent, the price of food, and the cost of basic services.

Italo Sbrogio, a worker at the chemical plant at Porto Marghera, later admitted that the ploy was a partial success. “In view of this,” he went on, we “put our back into it and said that the intervention inside the factories would have to be carried to the outside, to the ‘social,’ as well, broaching the issue of the rise of living costs.” In other words, struggles inside the factory were now faced with a strategic impasse; it became necessary to surround them by waging the struggle on other terrains. This was one of the primary strategic considerations behind the auto-reduction campaigns, which, it should be noted, began in the proletarian neighborhoods immediately surrounding the factories. Sbrogio recalls how the movement soon spread beyond the factory neighborhoods: “People lowered rents, occupied empty houses, paid less for their food. We organized all this by establishing local committees in the various parts of town. We even managed to organize a shopping strike which forced some supermarkets to cut prices for basic food.” In one case, a major self-reduction demonstration culminated with militants starting “a huge fire by burning all the gas and electricity bills that we had reduced. After four months of nationwide protests the government and union signed an agreement, which cut the price of electricity. Those involved in the committee said that such a strong bond between the factory and the neighborhood had never existed before.”18

In some instances, these struggles over social reproduction led to experiments in collective ways of living, creating day-care centers, communal kitchens, and people’s health centers.19 These experiments in other forms of life, which many considered essential to ensuring the non-reproduction of specifically capitalist social relations, went beyond counterculture precisely because they were fully rooted in a much broader front of struggles.

Of course, there were considerable debates about this general move beyond the point of production, and many factory workers vehemently opposed the demotion of their struggles to second rank. This would in fact prove to be a major contradiction within the movement. Yet in the heat of the struggle, when strategy became the order of the day, the old narrative that placed primacy on the plant came undone, and other paths of class formation revealed themselves.

The Political Question

Today, amidst a changed political and class landscape, strategy should take precedence over fidelity to the received canon. The activities of social reproduction remain the field of powerful class antagonisms. Not only has the capitalist assault on the terrain of reproduction taken the form of austerity – the devolution of the costs of social reproduction back onto workers – but the growing response to the squeeze on working-class time has been the accelerated marketization and commodification of reproductive labor.

Many of today’s lines of political contestation are thus being drawn squarely through the terrain of social reproduction – soaring rents, crumbling buildings, underfunded schools, high food prices, crippling debt, police violence, and insufficient access to basic social services like water, transportation, and health care. It’s no surprise that some of the most dynamic mass struggles – such as anti-racism, anti-police brutality, and anti-austerity – are primarily unfolding in neighborhoods. In Ferguson, where unemployment is over 13%, a social movement was born in the streets, not the shop floor. In Detroit, once the heart of factory struggles in this country, one of the major struggles today is the fight for water.

We should not take this to mean that social reproduction is a transhistorical category of economic necessity, and that therefore it joins production as an anthropological imperative. It should point us instead to the specificity of capitalist social relations, which begin, in the words of Michael Denning, “not with the offer of work, but with the imperative to earn a living.”20 When we assume the perspective of social reproduction, we see that our basic state, so to speak, is not defined by a waged job, but rather existential wagelessness. On the terrain of social reproduction it becomes abundantly clear that unemployment precedes employment, the informal economy precedes the formal, and proletarian does not mean wage worker.

The struggles at the level of social reproduction link with those in the fast food industry, agriculture, hospitals, universities, and logistics, attesting to the need for a unitary field of analysis and antagonism. The political question today is how to effectively articulate the plurality of struggles on these diverse terrains in a way that can begin the long process of building a new class power. And that brings us once again to the question of political organization.


  1. Charles Fourier, “Letter to the High Judge,” in The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier: Selected Texts on Work, Love, and Passionate Attraction, translated, edited, and introduced by Jonathan Beecher and The Visionary and His World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971). 

  2. Charles S. Maier, “Consigning the Twentieth Century to History: Alternative Narratives for the Modern Era,” The American Historical Review 105, no. 3 (June 2000): 807-31. 

  3. Salar Mohandesi, “Class Consciousness or Class Composition?” Science and Society 77, no. 1 (January 2013): 72-97. 

  4. Otto Rühle, From the Bourgeois Revolution to the Proletarian Revolution, 1924. 

  5. Karl Kautsky, The Class Struggle, 1888, Chapter 5, Section 5. 

  6. The image of the school is drawn from Lars Lih’s characterization of the social democratic conception of the factory, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to Be Done? in Context (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 523. See also Daniel Lindenberg, L’Internationale communiste et l’école de classe (Paris: Maspero, 1971). 

  7. Kautsky, Class Struggle, Chapter 5, Section 5. 

  8. Ibid., Chapter 5, Section 14. 

  9. Kathleen Canning, “Gender and the Politics of Class Formation: Rethinking German Labor History,” The American Historical Review 97, no. 3 (June 1992): 763n, 761. Canning documents the shifting gender composition of the DTAV: “In 1897, a few years after the DTAV’s first congress, some 2,400 women comprised a mere 11 percent of its membership. During the next decade, the union experienced a process of feminization that paralleled the transformation of the textile work force and by 1907, women represented 37 percent of DTAV rank and file. As the union continued to grow before World War I, this figure remained relatively constant (see graph). Between 1913 and 1919, female membership more than tripled, as women came to dominate the union during the war. It increased again dramatically between 1919 and 1923, when nearly one-half million women belonged to the DTAV… by 1925 the unionization rate for female textile workers had surpassed that of men: 30 percent of female textile workers, compared to 24.5 percent of their male colleagues, belonged to the DTAV. Furthermore, women went out on strike in numbers that equaled, and during the years 1919 to 1924 even exceeded, those of male textile workers,” 759-60. 

  10. Richard J. Evans, “Politics and the Family: Social Democracy and the Working-Class Family in Theory and Practice Before 1914,” in The German Family: Essays on the Social History of The Family in Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Germany, ed. Richard J. Evans and W. R. Lee (London: C. Helm, 1981). 

  11. Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 191; Canning, “Gender,” 766. 

  12. Ibid., 257. 

  13. Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor, and Capital (New York: Autonomedia, 1995), 49. 

  14. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1966). The antinomy between “experience” and “language” as categories of analysis – reflecting not only the decisive mirrored confrontation of phenomenology and structuralism in European theory, but also the Thompsonian mode of labor history and the feminist critique following the “linguistic turn” – is precisely what a methodology of class composition seeks to overcome. On this intellectual-historical point see Warren Montag, Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s Perpetual War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), and Knox Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014). 

  15. For a powerful criticism of the gendered assumptions of this book as a whole, see Joan Scott, “Women in the Making of the Working Class,” in Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988). 

  16. Joan Scott and Louise Tilly, Women, Work, and Family (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978). 

  17. Bruno Ramirez, “The Working Class Struggle Against the Crisis: Self-Reduction of Prices in Italy,” Zerowork 1, (December 1975): 143-150. Reprinted in Radical America 10 no. 4 (July-August 1976): 27-34. 

  18. Italo Sbrogio, “The history of the workers‘ committee of Porto Marghera,” talk delivered on June 9, 2006 in Marghera, Italy. Reprinted in Porto Marghera: The Last Firebrands, 39-40. 

  19. Patrick Cuninghame, “Mapping the Terrain of Struggle: Autonomous Movements in 1970s Italy,” in this issue. 

  20. Michael Denning, “Wageless Life,” New Left Review 66 (November-December 2010): 80. 

Authors of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).

is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.